Diarrhea is more than three loose, liquid stools in one day. It causes the body to lose fluids and electrolytes. Diarrhea can be:
- Acute—sudden and brief
- Chronic—long term
- Recurring—diarrhea that comes and goes over time
Fluid loss can lead to dehydration . This can be dangerous for babies, young children, and older adults.
Causes may be:
- Food intolerance, such as lactose intolerance
Certain medicines, such as:
- Magnesium-containing antacids
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Injury to the bowel after radiation treatments for cancer
- Malabsorption syndromes, such as celiac disease
- Diseases of the pancreas or gallbladder
- Inflammatory bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn disease
Chronic diseases, such as:
- Liver disease
- Colon cancer
- Intestinal surgery
Infections such as:
- Bacterial, such as salmonella
- Viral, such as rotavirus and norovirus
- Fungal, such as yeast
Problems may be:
- Frequent loose, liquid stools
- Belly pain and cramping
- An urgent need to have a bowel movement
- Blood and mucus in the stool
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle aches and pains
- Weight loss
When Should I Call My Doctor?
Call your doctor if you:
- Have diarrhea that lasts longer than three days
- Are not able to eat or drink to stay hydrated
- Have a fever
Call your doctor if your young child:
- Has diarrhea that lasts longer than a day
- Has pus in his or her stool
- Does not have wet diapers
- Is crying without tears
- Is unusually sleepy or irritable
- Has a fever
When Should I Call for Medical Help Right Away?
Call for medical help or go to the emergency room right away if you or your child has:
- Severe belly pain and cramping
- Bloody or black stool
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may insert a gloved finger into the rectum to examine it. This is called a digital rectal exam.
The doctor may ask these questions to find the cause of diarrhea:
- Does anyone else in the family have diarrhea?
- What kinds of food and drinks have you had?
- Do your children attend daycare?
- Have you traveled recently?
- What is your sexual history?
Blood tests and stool tests may be done.
The rectum and colon may need to be examined. This can be done with:
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy
A biopsy may also be taken.
Images may be taken of the colon. This can be done with:
- Upper gastrointestinal (GI) series
- Barium enema
|Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.|
The risk of diarrhea may be lowered by:
- Practicing proper hand hygiene
- Practicing safe food preparation and storage
Taking care when traveling, such as:
- Drinking bottled water and avoiding drinks with ice
- Avoiding foods from street vendors
- Not eating raw vegetables or fruits
- Cooking foods well
- Only eating pasteurized dairy products
Rotavirus is a common cause of diarrhea in children under 5 years of age. The rotavirus vaccine can prevent it.
This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.
Edits to original content made by Denver Health.
Copyright © EBSCO Information Services
All rights reserved.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians http://familydoctor.org
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders http://www.niddk.nih.gov
The College of Family Physicians of Canada http://www.cfpc.ca
Health Canada https://www.canada.ca
Acute diarrhea in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/approach-to/acute-diarrhea-in-adults. Accessed February 9, 2021.
Diarrhea. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/health-tools/search-by-symptom/diarrhea.html. Accessed February 9, 2021.
Diarrhea. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/diarrhea. Accessed February 9, 2021.
Rotavirus vaccines. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/vaccines/rotavirus-vaccine.html. Accessed February 9, 2021.
Shane AL, Mody RK, et al. 2017 Infectious Diseases Society of America Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Infectious Diarrhea. Clin Infect Dis. 2017 Nov 29;65(12):e45-e80.